Saturday, September 5, 2009

America's 'Judge'

Mike Judge has been around for a quite while now, lurking behind the scenes, quietly making fun of America. He created the animated TV series Beavis and Butt-head for MTV in 1993 which was a comment on America's dienchanted youth and King of the Hill for FOX in 1997 which was an insightful look into rural family life. He also wrote and directed the films Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996), Office Space (1999), Idiocracy (2006). His new film Extract hit theaters this weekend.
Office Space was a flop at the box office upon its release in 1999, grossing a mere $10 million, which barely covered the cost of producing the film. Since then it has become a huge cult hit on DVD, selling almost 6 million copies. It was a skewering satire of the corporate American workplace and the futility of the daily grind the American worker puts themselves through in order to make money just so they can afford a house that's left vacant all day and a car to take them back and forth from work. While the white collar crime aspect of the plot might have been fun comedy on the surface, it demonstrated the emotional desperation and frustration of the office worker that comes with sitting in the same cubicle every day, doing meaningless, unfulfilling work, and going home to get a few hours of sleep only to wake up and sit through traffic on your way to doing a job you hate. It was a film so many could identify with, and that's why it's still an enduring favorite in home theaters 10 years after its release.

Judge's next film, Idiocracy, has also earned a cult following on video and TV despite barely being released and getting virtually no marketing support whatsoever. It paints a picture of a future where the stupid and ignorant have taken over the country through excessive reproduction, virtually breeding all intelligence out of society. A man and a woman of average intelligence by today's standards are accidentally sent to the future where they are now the smartest people alive. While Idiocracy is not a great film, it's an interesting premise that was executed well under the circumstances.
Social commentary is Mike Judge's forte, and he's back at it again, this time using blue collar work as the backdrop for Extract. However, unlike Office Space, Judge doesn't seem to be out to satirize the fundamental nature of this workplace. He seems to have much more respect for the manual labor needed to create a real product than the mindless paper-pushing of the office. Jason Bateman plays his standard everyman role as the owner of a company that produces various extract flavors. He proudly built the company from the ground up but his non-existent sex life at home is causing him to go through a mid-life crisis of sorts. He plans to sell the company to a large corporation so he can retire, but an accident on the floor injures a worker and puts the deal on hold.

In the meantime, a new temporary worker is hired, played by Mila Kunis, but she is really a con-artist out to steal the settlement money from the injured employee. She catches the eye of the owner (Bateman) and in an effort to pursue an affair with her without guilt he hires a gigolo to bait his wife into cheating. In the meantime, the sexy temp (Kunis) is trying to persuade the injured worker, played by Clifton Collins Jr., to sue the company, which would cause its bankruptcy. The workforce is scared by the prospect of the company being sold to a corporate entity and they attempt to rally support for a strike in order to leverage management into giving them a piece of the profits from the impending sale. They fear they might lose their jobs under new management and think it's unfair for the owner to make a huge profit when they are the ones doing all the hard work. It's hard not to think of the struggling economy and the millions of people who are desperately trying to support their families under difficult circumstances when we see the situation these assembly line workers are faced with here.

However, In the end, Extract likely won't join Office Space as a cult classic despite the fact that it will probably make much more money during its theatrical run. Unlike Office Space it doesn't ever quite connect with any one specific message, feeling, or overriding theme. While there are some parallels between Extract and the current economic crisis ultimately there's not much to inspire repeat viewings. It has its humorous moments, most of which involve Ben Affleck as a bartender who seems to "know a guy" for every situation that arises, but most of the jokes fall a bit flat. While Judge is usually so skillfully able to satirize American stupidity, here it's almost like he couldn't quite decide what to make fun of. Some of the plant's workers are depicted as lazy, racist, and stupid, but you come away with the feeling that Judge respects the work they do. Perhaps with the right focus the film could have been an indictment of America's economic system that forces people into low paying, dangerous factory jobs, but in the end it feels like America's Judge wimped out for the first time.

Extract (2009) 7/10